Volunteer school board members deserve adequate training

Our public schools have long served as the nucleus and hub of communities throughout our state. As such, the decisions of volunteer school board members reach into the heart of a community, affecting jobs, resources and activities and, most importantly, impacting the educational opportunities of over 90 percent of Michigan’s school-age students.

To serve on a public school board, candidates must be at least 18 years old, a citizen of the state, resident of the district, a registered voter and eligible under the State Constitution. But, as many current and past school board members can attest, the job realities of serving on the board belie the minimal legal requirements.

“I am a farmer by trade, so when I started serving on our local school board more than 35 years ago, I quickly became aware of gaps in my knowledge base,” noted Michigan Association of School Boards President Ruth Coppens of Merrill, Mich. “So I looked for training in order to effectively serve my community and be a strong advocate for student achievement.”

Without this knowledge and awareness, school boards are potentially liable for infractions against state laws and statutes, such as the Open Meetings and Freedom of Information Acts.

A February survey of likely Michigan voters conducted by EPIC-MRA
on behalf of the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB) showed overwhelming support for professional development and training for board members to meet these demanding roles and responsibilities.

Survey results revealed that nearly three out of four respondents — 74 percent — reported their belief that formal professional development instruction for school board members was either “essential” or at least “very important” (33 percent and 41 percent, respectively). Significantly, this sentiment cuts across all demographic subsets such as age, race, religion, region of the state, formal education level, income and party affiliation.

Perhaps more noteworthy are the results to the follow-up question asking those 74 percent who believed continuing education for school board members was at least “very important” if they favor or oppose legislation requiring a minimum number of such professional development credit hours. Eighty percent reported favoring legislation to require this professional development for school board members. Again, the supermajority result cuts across wide and disparate demographic subsets.

The proportions of the results in these questions are important — and somewhat rare — in that the overall takeaway from the results of the two questions reveal that a majority of respondents from all subgroups not only believe continued professional development for school board members is at least very important but, also, that it should be required.

With so much to learn and so much at stake in terms of raising student achievement and addressing districts’ academic and operational needs, almost half of the states across the country have pushed board training into law. Twenty-three states mandate training for both new and more veteran school board members according to the latest figures compiled in October 2012 by the National School Boards Association.

Among those states, nearly all stipulate the number of training hours and/or topics that must be included. For example, Minnesota mandates training in school finance and management for new board members. All board members in North Carolina must be trained in public school law, finance and the duties and responsibilities of local boards of education. Tennessee calls for all board members to participate in training in board and superintendent relations, advocacy, board policy and operations, vision and finance.

In addition to these topics, the other 20 states mandate training in labor law, the Open Meetings Act, student and school performance standards, freedom of information act laws, emergent and current education issues, curriculum and instruction, using data for decision-making and superintendent evaluations.

Currently, there are no professional development requirements for Michigan’s school board members, although MASB offers a voluntary certification program, classes and trainings to help board members stay on top of current issues and gain the technical knowledge necessary to do the job. Of the 4,063 active public school board members in the field today, 856 (21 percent) have completed the minimum level of fundamental training available through MASB.

Mandated or not, with such demanding responsibilities, it is important for board members to keep learning to be as effective as possible. And it is likewise important for citizens throughout our communities to speak up and show their support for continued and focused training, based on a district’s needs, for their locally elected school board representatives. Professional growth is a critical component for any job, especially one that oversees the education of our children and the responsible use of taxpayer dollars.

We need the best, brightest and most prepared teachers guiding our classrooms…and we need the best, brightest and most prepared school board members leading our school districts.

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Donna Sickels
Thu, 04/03/2014 - 9:08am
where and when are these classes offered, anything in western Michigan? I doubt it!
Stacy Bogard
Thu, 04/03/2014 - 9:26am
Hi Donna--there are actually classes regularly offered in west Michigan, including MASB's Annual Leadership Conference in Grand Rapids, November 6 - 9. You can see our full event calendar here: http://emerge.masb.org/source/Events/EventList.cfm.
Keith Warnick
Thu, 04/03/2014 - 9:50am
Donna, here's the link to the MASB website, event calendar. They have regularly scheduled CBA trainings across the state and at the annual conference. If you are a school board member, it is likely your district is a MASB member; you can log in and schedule training as needed. Many districts cover the cost of the CBA classes along with travel expenses. For some CBA classes, you can also take those online.http://emerge.masb.org/source/Events/EventList.cfm
Patrick Shannon
Thu, 04/03/2014 - 10:29am
I could not agree more with the author's argument regarding support for more public school board education. For several years I served as a director of a college charter school authorizing body. We provided excellent training for our charter school boards in the areas outlined in the article. A few years back I contacted MASB regarding the potential of their organization working with our 43 school boards. I never heard back. I realize traditional public school and public charter school supporters may not always see eye to eye but the overall well-being of public education and taxpayer dollars are at issue in both venues. It is time to put down the animosity toward one-another and focus on quality public education of children in Michigan. This is an opportunity for the boards to work together and put down parochial attitudes that are not efficient and only waste taxpayer dollars at the expense of students.
Mon, 04/07/2014 - 8:24am
Patrick - MASB is deeply committed to our mission, which is to provide quality educational leadership services for all Michigan boards of education, and to advocate for student achievement and public education. Over the last several years we have worked with several charter schools boards, providing them with policy services and governance workshops. Last year we reached out to the Michigan Association of Public School Academies and they have included us on their list of resources for charter schools. I'm not certain how we missed your call, but I do apologize and assure you that it was in no way intentional. We always welcome any opportunity to work with school boards.
Jay Bennett
Thu, 04/03/2014 - 10:29am
MASB also offers many of their classes online.
Dave Medema
Thu, 04/03/2014 - 11:27am
MASB offers many high quality learning opportunities for trustees (holders of the public trust they are indeed!). Kethy is spot-on. We get what we invest in. Voluntary participation leaves local board effectiveness and leadership at great risk.
Thu, 04/03/2014 - 11:42am
I have never served on a school board but served as a trustee at the township level. I attended the MTA (Michigan township association) conference for 4 years while in office and attended other specialized classes. Before elected to office I did not realize the duties of a trustee were supposed to be accountable for. If done to best of ones ability it requires the commitment of all the board members. research is important and if each member of the board contributes in the effort hopefully better decisions will prevail. Why is an important question to ask because a uninformed answer will result in reducing your credibility as a board member. Dale
Thu, 04/03/2014 - 4:24pm
Dale - you are so correct. MTA training sessions are extremely valuable. I served 2 terms as a Trustee and 2 terms as Supervisor. I attended many of the MTA sessions and do not feel that any of them were a waste of time nor money. I would even go so far as to advocate the legislation proposed in the original opinion piece be expanded to also include elected local representatives for EVERY body - think Townships, Cities, Counties, Libraries, etc.
Dean Smith
Fri, 04/04/2014 - 4:19pm
This was a key point that was part of the school administrators curriculum, a responsibility of the superintendent to educate his school board as well as his staff.
Sun, 04/06/2014 - 9:08pm
Amazing Bridge! You crack open another underlying issue! It is this lack of training that leads to school boards in Michigan leaning on the one education professional involved, the superintendent, for guidance. Ultimately creating a school board that is nothing more than 7 'yes men/women!'
Tue, 04/08/2014 - 11:00pm
I'm the only member of my board that takes CBA classes, and one of the few in my county to do so. I can't begin to explain why. Every class I take is followed by a written report about the content of the class and how it might apply to our district. I find the classes essential and worthwhile, I totally support mandated training because at 21% completion of the basic classes statewide, it is clear that our students and taxpayers are not being served as well as they could be. Perhaps if board members were given a weighted share of voting power based upon training completed, member participation in the training would soar and voters would be better served.